The Hong Kong box office has been so badly hit by the outbreak of Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS) that exhibitors are starting to cut shows and distributors are pulling films from Easter release schedules.

Hong Kong's leading exhibitors reported that box office receipts plummeted between 30% and 55% in the last week of March when the number of SARS cases began to escalate and panic-stricken Hong Kong residents started to avoid public places.

According to industry body, the Motion Picture Industry Association (MPIA), the top ten films grossed only $693,165 between March 27 and April 2, a decline of 36% compared to the previous week.

The situation appeared to improve slightly last weekend with the release of UIP's The Core and Columbia TriStar's Tears Of The Sun. According to local studio Golden Harvest, takings at the company's cinemas increased by an average of 15% to 18% compared to the previous weekend.

However, distributors are predicting it will take time for admissions to return to normal levels. "Hong Kong people are afraid to go to the cinema," said MPIA chief Woody Tsung. "We had a strong line-up of films for the Easter holidays, but the crisis is forcing many distributors to reconsider their plans."

Among the titles that have been pulled from the traditionally lucrative Easter holiday period are Thai comedy Iron Ladies 2 and children's film Digimon Super Express, both of which are distributed in Hong Kong by Golden Scene and are now likely to be released in June or July.

According to Golden Scene managing director Winnie Tsang, the cast of Iron Ladies 2 was scheduled to travel to Hong Kong, but cancelled due to the risk of infection, making it difficult to promote the film. "The timing of this crisis is unfortunate because the industry was just starting to feel optimistic after the success of [local hit crime thriller] Infernal Affairs," said Tsang.

In addition, Intercontinental Film Distributors, which sub-distributes Disney films in Hong Kong, is likely to pull Jungle Book 2 from an Easter release slot. "Understandably, parents are concerned about allowing their children to go to the cinema," a company spokesman said.

However, Golden Harvest is pushing ahead with the release of Bulletproof Monk, starring Chow Yun-Fat, on April 17. Warner Bros also plans to release Dreamcatcher on April 17 as originally scheduled.

"This may not be the best time to release films, but we need strong product to get people back into cinemas," said Golden Harvest head of distribution, Teerachai Triwongwaranat.